Unemployment among adult males may have an indirect and overlooked social cost - an increase in the incidence of low infant birthweight, according to researchers.
"Rising unemployment can affect the health of individuals associated with the unemployed person by both increasing the demands upon them and decreasing their coping resources," said lead author Ralph Catalano, PhD, of the School of Public Health at the University of California at Berkeley.
The female partners of unemployed males commonly experience stress, which is also described as a mismatch between life's demands and available resources. Rising unemployment in the community at large can also induce stress, even in those not directly affected, by reducing support from friends and relatives. For pregnant women, stress is a risk factor for preterm delivery, very low infant birthweight (less than 1500 grams, or 3.3 lbs.), and subsequent infant illness.
Stress is thought to play a role in inducing preterm labor by its debilitating effect on the immune system. An economically stress-weakened woman may be less able to fight infection during the course of her pregnancy, a condition that increases her risk of premature delivery.
Very low birthweight infants account for just 1.2 percent of births. However, very low birthweight accounts for 64.3 percent of infant deaths in the US, according to the study. The results of the research appear in the December issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.
Catalano and colleagues searched for variations in birthweight levels over a course of more than 20 years of births in Norway and Sweden, two countries in which all residents, including the unemployed, have access to free prenatal health care. When they compared very low birthweight levels against levels of male unemployment in Norway and Sweden, they found a correlating pattern of increases and decreases among the two measurements.